Spelling, the South, and Certain Confusion
I’ve lived in Alabama for forty-five years and taught here for sixteen, and I’ve never met a kid who liked a spelling test. (I’m sure there are some, I just don’t know them.) However, though we rail against spelling tests and grammar worksheets when we’re young, the alternative is far, far worse— especially for the South. None of us today can imagine a world where widespread illiteracy is the standard. We can’t fathom living, working, and socializing in a society where few people could read and write, where almost all the messages of daily life were transmitted orally.
Not long ago, I finished my surface-level coverage of the history of the English language with my twelfth-grade English students, beginning with the departure of the Romans from the British Isles in the 400s AD and ending with Samuel Johnson’s dictionary in 1755. Each year, we talk about the Old English of “Beowulf” and Bede, the Lindisfarne Gospels, the Battle of Hastings in 1066 and the introduction of Old French by William the Conqueror, then Chaucer’s use of Middle English vernacular in The Canterbury Tales, Wycliffe‘s and Tyndale‘s efforts to have an English Bible, the effects of the printing press on literacy, followed by the defeat of the Spanish armada in 1588, Shakespeare’s innovative usage and style, the King James Version of the Bible, and finally, the dictionaries of the 17th and 18th centuries . . . all of which have shaped this strange language that we use today. I want for my students to understand why we English speakers are swimming in irregularities, why English sounds different wherever it’s spoken around the world, and why we have to take those darn spelling tests.
Because we live in a global society, we need standardized spelling and grammar, and the South is no exception. According to Melvyn Bragg’s book The Adventure of English, which accompanied the BBC series of the same name, prior to King Henry V’s chancery beginning to standardize our wacky language’s spelling in the 1400s, there were thirty-four different spellings of the word receive and twenty-two for the word people. Americans, and Southerners in particular, need standardized spelling. Consider this everyday Southern conversation between two working-class men:
Person 1: Jeetyut?
Person 2: Nawjoo?
Person 1: Naw yont-too?
If you’re not from the South, you may have no idea what those two men are saying. So here it is, in standard English, which if spoken would hardly sound like what would come out of those two men’s’ mouths:
Person 1: Did you eat yet?
Person 2: No, did you?
Person 1: No, do you want to?
Person: Yes, let’s go.
To move instead to a style of Southern speech that’s more blue-blooded, a dialect/accent that has little use for the consonant R, consider this:
Person 1: Dijoo see that bawee ovuh thayuh?
Person 2: I deeklayuh . . . he’s not spostah be ovuh thayuh!
Now, in standard English spelling:
Person 1: Did you see that boy over there?
Person 2: I declare . . . He is not supposed to be over there!
And those two examples from the Deep South don’t even begin to cover Appalachian English, which is a-whole-nother branch of South-talk.
Can you imagine an customer service rep in Phoenix, Arizona or Burlington, Vermont getting an email from a customer in Nwawlinz or Jawjuh, who spelled words the way they sound down here? The message would read like the cow’s scribbled signs in Chick-Fil-A ads! (If you’re not from the South, you may also not know what Chick-Fil-A is.)
Though we English teachers can be regarded as the enemies of the people – those pedants who insist on rules that no one follows and who make people read books that no one understands – we actually perform a great public service: consolidating and perpetuating a common linguistic and literary heritage that took centuries to forge. Will there be defiant disregard for those standards? Yes. Will we ever enforce utter conformity? Never. (Do we expect to? Not hardly.) But God bless all of you if we ever stopped doing what we do.